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James Paxton helps Yankees fend off ALCS elimination

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NEW YORK — There was always going to an element of risk mixed with some doubt for both the player and his new baseball team.

But Canadian James Paxton believed he was ready for the brighter lights in one of the sport’s most heated homes and the New York Yankees needed a stud for their starting rotation.

So, with the man they call Big Maple successfully transplanted to the Bronx and on a desperate Friday night at Yankee Stadium when his team needed him the most, how would it unfold?

The left-hander delivered a mammoth moment for the storied franchise, tossing a critical, post-season victory to keep the team’s hopes alive. Striking out nine Houston Astros batters through a grinding six innings, Paxton helped the Yankees to a 4-1 Game 5 win, fending off elimination in the ALCS.

“When you think of the Yankees, you think of the postseason,” Paxton said of a tense, electric and ultimately thrilling night at the big stadium. “They pride themselves on winning and that’s what we do here. I knew that I’d probably get an opportunity of pitching the postseason, and that’s what I wanted to do.

“That’s what I wanted to do when I came here, and that’s what we’re doing now. It’s been a great experience and I want to keep on going.”

In large part due to Paxton’s clutch performance, the best-of-seven series will indeed remain in orbit for at least one more night, anyway, resuming in Houston on Saturday. The Astros still have a 3-2 lead and a decided edge to advance.

Staked to a three-run lead in the first inning, thanks to a solo home run from DJ LeMahieu and a three-run blast from Aaron Hicks, Paxton showed himself and his team plenty on a boisterous night in the Bronx.

Feeding off the electricity of the sellout crowd of 48,483, he seemed to get stronger as the frigid night went on, striking out nine. Five of those came in his final three innings of work and the total was more than any Canadian pitcher had recorded in an MLB post-season game.

‘This is definitely the biggest game in my career,” said Paxton, who had a no-hitter against the Blue Jays in Toronto in 2018. “The first two post-season games definitely helped prepare me for this. This was even more so intensity-wise. I was just grinding the whole way.”

The Yankees certainly needed that kind of a performance to extend the series and got it from a pitcher manager Aaron Boone believed had the tools and the personality to survive on the stage.

“I thought James was great today,” Boone said. “He came in with just an edge, a focus. He just kept going and I felt like he got better as the night went on.”

Actually, the initial tone that played out was the last thing the Yankees needed. The game actually began with an infield single, a passed ball, a walk and a wild pitch to give the Astros a 1-0 lead before a ball was even hit out of the infield.

When the Yankees finally showed some pop with four runs in the bottom half, there was exhaling all around. The Astros, after all, had Justin Verlander on the mound, a guy who hadn’t allowed that many runs in an inning since joining the team in 2017.

Predictably, the Houston ace settled in for his usual brilliance, leaving Paxton to keep the savvy Astros hitters at bay. After allowing the four runs, Verlander pitched a one-hit shutout the rest of the way and neither team scored following the five-run first.

But Paxton was undaunted. Not by the situation and not by the fact he went just 2.1 innings in Game 2 back in Houston as he admitted nerves unsettled him.

The Ladner, B.C., native didn’t have a clean three-up, three-down inning in Game 5, but with his breaking ball at its vexing best and a fastball still touching 96 mph late in his outing, the Astros never threatened to score again under his watch.

“He was attacking the zone extremely well,” Hicks said. “That’s what you need to do against hitters like this. He was getting strikeouts when he needed it. We needed a huge start from him and he came through in a huge way.”

It wasn’t always pretty and Verlander was certainly more efficient, but Paxton allowed just four hits and four walks. His 112 pitches were the most any Yankees pitcher had tossed all year.

It was, however, a major moment for Paxton, who had spent the entirety of his career in the relative familiarity of the Pacific Northwest with the Mariners. But when Seattle dealt him to the sport’s most impassioned franchise, Paxton’s world was about to change.

The 30-year-old southpaw set career highs in wins and starts in his first season with the Yankees, much of it setting the stage for a Friday night in October and his team facing elimination.

Big Maple meet the Big Apple. A match that for one night, anyway, was a perfect post-season fit.

“I wasn’t ready to go home yet,” Paxton said afterwards, with a suggestion that the best may be yet to come.

BIG MAPLE, BIG HISTORY

The historical significance of the outing was not lost on Paxton, whose 20 strikeouts over 13 innings this post-season passed the Jays’ John Axford for the most all-time by a Canadian-born pitcher. The nine Ks on Friday were the most in a single game by a Canuck hurler.

“I’ve always followed what Canadian players have done in the sport and this accomplishment is pretty special and an honour to have it,” Paxton said in an interview with the Sun. “I’ve had lots of support from friends and family back up in Canada and it’s really been special to share this experience with them.”

Paxton became just the seventh Canadian-born pitcher to be credited with a post-season win.

AROUND THE BASES

For the first time since he suffered a minor quad injury in Game 1, Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton was back in the lineup after telling Boone he was good to go.

Inserted at DH, Stanton was booed lustily after strikeouts in the first and sixth innings.

— Astros manager A.J. Hinch said his team is likely to go with a “bullpen day” for Saturday’s Game 6, saving near-unbeatable ace Gerrit Cole for a possible Game 7 on Sunday. Boone hinted that his plan is the same.

— Beyond the obvious, how big was LeMahieu’s leadoff homer? It was the first such round-tripper by a Yankees batter in the post-season since Derek Jeter led off Game 3 of the 2009 ALCS with a shot versus the Angels. In the Yankees’ 405th franchise post-season game, it was the first time they hit a pair of homers in the first inning.

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Brian Burke considered favourite to replace Don Cherry

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The Canadian Press


Published Tuesday, November 12, 2019 10:56AM EST


Last Updated Tuesday, November 12, 2019 11:09AM EST

TORONTO – Former NHL executive Brian Burke is listed as the heavy favourite to be Don Cherry‘s successor on “Hockey Night in Canada” on one sports betting site.

SportsBettingDime.com has released odds on candidates to replace Cherry after the commentator was sacked by Sportsnet yesterday for a rant about immigrants not wearing poppies on his “Coach’s Corner” segment on Saturday.

Burke, who currently works as an analyst at Sportsnet, is listed as the 3-2 favourite (must bet $2 to win $3) to appear on Cherry‘s longtime “Coach’s Corner” segment on Saturday.

Burke is the 5-4 pick to be the full-time replacement next season.

Sportsnet has not said whether it plans to keep the “Coach’s Corner” segment, which has been a first-intermission staple on HNIC.

Sportsnet hockey commentators Kelly Hrudey, Colby Armstrong and Craig Simpson are among the other betting favourites for Cherry’s job.

The site also is taking odds on what Cherry does next, with working for another media organization the favourite.

If he goes into politics, the odds consider Cherry’s most likely destination to be under Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Conservative party.

Cherry is listed as a 2,000-1 pick to join the NDP.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2019.

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Equestrian star Nicole Walker suspended

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In this Aug. 9, 2019, file photo, Nicole Walker competes at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games. Raul Sifuentes/Getty Images

Canada’s equestrian jumping team is likely to lose their invitation to the Tokyo Olympics after rider Nicole Walker tested positive for a banned substance, a cocaine metabolite, at last summer’s Pan American games.

Walker, aged 26, was a top performer at the Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, and her scores helped qualify the four-member jumping team for the Olympic Games. On Tuesday, regulators at the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) in Switzerland announced Walker was provisionally suspended from the sport after testing positive for Benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, in Peru on August 7, after the finals of the jumping competition. Canada placed fourth in the event.

Walker’s positive drug test is being separately investigated by the game’s governing body, Panam Sports. According to sources close to the Canadian equestrian team, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak for the athletes, Walker has told Panam Sports that her failed test stemmed from drinking coca tea, a legal and common pick-me-up in South America. The stakes are high for Canada’s equestrian team, as the positive doping test and cancelled trip to the Tokyo games would mean cuts in funding from the Canadian Olympic Committee and the potential loss of corporate sponsors.

On Tuesday, the FEI said Walker exercised her right to request a hearing before the Panam Sports disciplinary commission. The Swiss group said: “Once the disciplinary commission has made a decision on the disqualification of the athlete, and team Canada’s final placing, the FEI will be in a position to make any necessary reallocation of the Olympic quota place.”

Walker is royalty in horse circles. She went into the Pan Am Games as reigning Canadian show-jumping champion. She is the daughter of auto-parts maker Magna International Inc. CEO Don Walker and his former wife Belinda Stronach, who runs a global horse racing business built by her father, Frank Stronach, a prominent racehorse owner and Magna’s billionaire founder. According to multiple sources in the equestrian community, Walker is a hard-working, grounded athlete who doesn’t use recreational drugs, and has a rational explanation for her positive test. Through a spokesperson, Walker declined to comment on Tuesday.

In this 2018 file photo, Nicole Walker, left, and Belinda Stronach appear at The Stronach Group Chalet in Baltimore, Maryland.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

In Lima, Walker placed fourth among 50 riders at the Pan Am Games in August, the best individual performance on an otherwise veteran Canadian jumping team. Overall, the Canadian team also placed fourth, with Walker’s scores critical to carrying the entire squad to next summer’s Olympics. Over the years, Canadian equestrians have won five Olympic medals for jumping. The Tokyo games are expected to be an emotional experience for the group, as three-times medalist Eric Lamaze is planning to compete after announcing this summer that he is dealing with a brain tumour. Lamaze was unable to participate in the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics after testing positive for cocaine.

Prior to the Lima games, all of Canada’s athletes were warned that they are responsible for everything they ingest – medication, food and drinks – by event organizers. Inadvertently breaking the rules has cost Canadian athletes in the past. Rower Silken Laumann and three teammates lost their PanAm gold medals in 1995 after Laumann turned in a positive drug test from taking an over-the-counter cold medication.

After the Lima games, doping watchdog Panam Sports said in a press release that 15 athletes tested positive for a banned substance. According to sources close to the team, Walker apologized to all her teammates, and told both colleagues and officials with Panam Sports that traces of cocaine in her urine test came from drinking tea made from coca leaves while she was in Peru. Coca leaves are the source of cocaine.

Coca tea, known in Peru as mate de coca, is a legal drink with a mild kick. It’s common for Peruvian hotels and restaurants to serve a cup of mate de coca to tourists, to combat jet lag and altitude sickness. Medical studies show drinking one cup of coca tea can result in a positive drug test for up to 24 hours.

Positive drug tests from coca tea are a well-document issue for athletes. In 2005, the Jockey Club in Great Britain commissioned a study of the beverage after several jockeys tested positive for cocaine and claimed it was a result of drinking coca tea. The British racing group found a single cup of coca tea can translate into a positive test for cocaine for 24 hours or more. In writing up the Jockey Club’s study, the British Journal of Sport Medicine said: “Although the teabag packaging reports benefits such as increased energy and improved digestion, most people who sample the product report little subjective effect at all.”

In the U.S., a number of government employees, including police officers, blamed coca tea consumption in South America for positive drug tests at work. Some were fired, others had the explanation accepted by employers, and kept their jobs.

Panam Sports has already disqualified seven athletes for doping at the Lima games – three were stripped of gold medals – while athletes appealed the other eight tests. Sources say Walker is one of the athletes who challenged a positive test. Decisions on all eight appeals are expected as early as this month, according to officials at Panam Sports. If the doping authority upholds the positive result, Walker’s scores from this summer’s games in Lima will be dropped from the team’s total, and the Canadian equestrian team will no longer qualify for the Olympics, according to sources close to the equestrian team.

Walker and her horse were the country’s featured jumpers going into the Pan Am Games. “Wearing the red jacket brings added pressure, but it is an incredible feeling to have a whole nation behind you,” Walker said in an Equestrian Canada press release this summer. She pointed out that the country fielded an experienced team and her horse was in good health and said: “Together, I think we can pull off a great result for Canada.”

Walker delivered in Lima. Her fourth-place finish in the individual competition saw her lose PanAm bronze to an American athlete by less than a two second margin, in a four-rider “jump off.” The Canadians qualified for the Tokyo games by placing fourth overall. Brazil’s jumping team won gold, while Mexico took silver and the United States went home with bronze.

There were three other athletes on the Canadian PanAm jumping team, Erynn Ballard from Ontario, Alberta-based Lisa Carlsen and Mario Deslauriers from Quebec. Carlsen and Deslauriers, both aged 54, competed in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and Deslauriers also rode in the 1984 Los Angeles games. Ballard, aged 38, has not competed at the Olympics. She also had a strong showing in Lima.

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Maple Leafs couldn’t afford to wait for Hutchinson’s play to improve

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It finally reached the point where it would have been insane for the Toronto Maple Leafs to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result.

Either the organization had to change how it deploys the backup goaltender in back-to-back situations. Or the Maple Leafs had to change the backup.

That explains why Michael Hutchinson found himself on waivers Monday, just hours after a 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. The veteran only received junk-mail assignments this season — going 0-4-1 behind a tired team while closing out back-to-backs for Toronto — but he allowed 23 goals in those games and twice squandered multi-goal leads.

The Leafs were a leaky outfit when Hutchinson played, plain and simple, and will now give farmhand Kasimir Kaskisuo a chance to step into that role with another tough back-to-back set looming later in the week.

“We have [14] back-to-backs this year,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said in Chicago. “You’ve got to get going, you’ve got to get points.”

Kaskisuo was enjoying a strong start to his American Hockey League season, but this promotion arrives entirely because of circumstance. Hutchinson has struggled in the No. 2 role and the Leafs don’t have the salary cap space available to add money for the remainder of the year by acquiring someone from outside the organization.

This was always going to be their next easiest option, with Kaskisuo ($675,000) and Hutchinson ($700,000) basically amounting to a cap neutral transaction.

If this doesn’t work out they’ll have to look for another goaltender in a similar price range, or ship out salary to make room for a more expensive option.

All the team is looking for at this stage is a couple wins on the nights where Frederik Andersen watches from the bench. That basically only occurs during the second half of a back-to-back because Babcock remains steadfast about using Andersen for the first game regardless of opponent, venue or any other circumstance — a strategy that has seen Toronto go 35-8-7 in those situations dating back to 2016-17 compared with 19-28-3 in the second game.

What Hutchinson failed to do in his five starts this season was come up with the one extra save needed to produce a result. He was hung out to dry early in Sunday’s game at the United Center, for example, but saw his teammates mount a feverish rally after going down 4-1 to Chicago.

Then Hutchinson allowed another goal with less than four minutes to play in regulation. They lost by one.

“Obviously, five goals is never great,” he said afterwards. “The fifth goal, looking back on that, that one stings a bit. That’s one, a big save in the third period that you’d like to come up with.

“Knowing how well the guys are pushing in the third period, it’s unfortunate that I wasn’t able to make that save to give us a chance to come away with at least a point.”

The 29-year-old was a popular teammate who grew up nearby in Barrie, Ont., cheering for the Leafs. Everyone involved wanted this to work. It just didn’t.

Remember that Hutchinson was acquired in a trade last December to be the organization’s No. 3 option and may well have occupied that same spot to start this season if Michal Neuvirth’s training camp tryout had gone better.

Now Kaskisuo gets a turn in the Leafs backup role after a four-year apprenticeship in the AHL and ECHL. He led the Marlies to the conference final last season and has a .928 save percentage and 6-1-1 record so far this year.

There’s been a carousel of goalies behind Andersen since he came to Toronto more than three years ago.

Only veteran Curtis McElhinney thrived in the role over parts of two seasons. He was lost on waivers to Carolina last fall so that the Leafs could make room for Garret Sparks, who subsequently struggled and got traded to Vegas in the summer.

Here’s a look at how the Toronto goaltenders have fared behind Andersen:

NameGamesSave %RecordShutouts
Curtis McElhinney32.92517-12-14
Garret Sparks20.9028-9-11
Michael Hutchinson11.8952-7-11
Jhonas Enroth6.8720-3-10
Antoine Bibeau2.9271-1-00
Calvin Pickard1.8570-0-10

Hutchinson’s tenure this season most closely resembled Enroth’s short stint in 2016-17 with one more important difference — he seemed to have the coach is in his corner. Babcock made no secret of the fact he wanted a change when Enroth struggled, but wasn’t nearly so hard on Hutchinson with his public comments.

Even after another five goals against in Chicago, he reserved judgment when asked where his confidence was at with the struggling goalie.

“I think the big thing to do always is after a game, instead of me commenting a whole bunch, I always try to watch the game and see where it’s at and go through every situation,” said Babcock.

Ultimately, time ran out on Hutchinson. They couldn’t wait any longer for things to change and decided to see if the next man up is more capable.

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